On the face of it, the statistics for breaking UK artists in 2018 don’t look great.
There were only four 2018 debut albums by UK artists in the Top 200 for the year at the half way stage – and only one of them has even gone silver. That’s just 2% of the chart, and only half the total at the same stage last year, when the likes of Rag’N’Bone Man’s Human had already gone double platinum, and Stormzy and Harry Styles had already achieved gold status.
It is, however, better than the dark days of 2016, when there were only two debuts on the Top 200, neither of which had even gone silver.
So, worrying times? Or should the biz be looking at this another way? Because, if you analyse the singles chart for the first half of 2018, things are a lot brighter on the new artist front.
Over there, there were no fewer than 42 songs by UK lead artists at debut (including 2017 releases) or pre-debut level. There were also 22 tracks by international artists at the same level, meaning 32% of that chart came from new acts. Suddenly things look healthier, right?
So, does the biz need to change the metric, and stop thinking of having a gold-selling album as the industry minimum standard for an act being “broken”? As actual sales of albums slump, even as consumption rises, labels are becoming understandably reluctant to commit to releasing full-length records by artists who are yet to build a committed fanbase.
Anne-Marie has the most successful debut album of 2018 so far, with Speak Your Mind (which is ace, by the way) selling 75,198 copies at the halfway stage, according to the Official Charts Company. But it’s surely significant that she first charted in 2015, and had six Top 40 hits before Speak Your Mind was released. That makes its tracklisting closer to a greatest hits than a debut.
Jorja Smith, whose Lost & Found album has sold 24,013, is already into double figures for track releases as either lead or featured artist. Calum Scott is no stranger to the chart either, which leaves classical artist Sheku Kanneh-Mason – who had the small platform of the Royal Wedding to help him out.
In this week’s Music Week Big Story, major label execs make the point that the business has changed and that some artists may have to get used to not releasing albums. And, while that might deprive us of some potentially great records, it’s hard to argue with that strategy when the numbers are only moving one way.
Newer artists seem to be adapting too, aware that – in the ultra competitive world of streaming – fans want constant short bursts of music rather than huge gaps between collections. Some of, say, rock’s loss of traction at singles level may be down to the genre’s leading lights’ reluctance to move away from the album-tour-album cycle.
National Album Day – announced this week and already dividing opinion – will hope to turn that tide. New chart rules are also trying to keep track of changing consumer behaviour. But can we really carry on saying the likes of Mabel (who appears on three tracks in the Top 200, for a total of 920,750 units sold, and plays Brixton Academy later this year) haven’t “broken” yet, just because she hasn’t got a full-length album in the shops?
If so, it might not just be breaking artists that the biz needs to worry about, but a broken system.